Visual artist Mike Bennett delighted his one-and-a-half million followers on TikTok when he announced in March his latest and most ambitious art project to date: a dinosaur museum in downtown Portland. Three months later, Dinolandia has now opened its doors inside a 22,000 square-foot space previously occupied by a department store. The interactive museum features 67 whimsically painted plywood dinosaurs, including a 15-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus Rex, several velociraptors and a pair of stegosauruses popping out of a psychedelic-tinted prehistoric forest. A dash of time-traveling storytelling and dinosaur facts help keep adults and children engaged and entertained. Mike Bennett joins us to talk about Dinolandia and making art that sparks, as he calls it, “public joy.”
Dinolandia is located at 710 SW Yamhill Street in downtown Portland. It’s open from Tuesday through Sunday and runs through September 10. Admission is $5 and free for children 8 and under.
Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Where there were once chinos, there are now dinos. Dozens of dinosaurs have taken over an old Banana Republic in downtown Portland. They are part of a pop-up immersive museum in the two story retail space. Dinolandia is the brainchild of the Portland visual artist Mike Bennett who joins us now. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Mike Bennett: Howdy. Thanks for having me.
Miller: Howdy to you. When did you start making big artistic creations out of painted plywood?
Bennett: Gosh. I’ve always been an illustrator, but large-scale art has been a challenge. My partner and I moved into a home in Northeast Portland and had a bunch of wood we couldn’t get rid of in our small car. So I borrowed a jigsaw and made a Calvin and Hobbes snowman, which was, I guess, going on three years ago.
Miller: Just because you had it? You had the wood, you had the saw and you had the paint.
Bennett: Honestly, we had to get rid of the wood. So I borrowed a neighbor’s jigsaw, and I was like, ‘Whoa, you can kind of draw with this thing. This is pretty cool!’ As someone who’s been afraid of power tools, it was an enlightening moment.
Miller: So you cut it and painted it. And then what did you do with it?
Bennett: I just threw it in the front yard. We were expecting a weird, I think it was like, an April snowstorm. And all of a sudden it started showing up all over the internet: Reddit and a couple of Facebook groups. I was like, ‘Oooh, people like this, this is fun!’
Miller: What did you do after that? I mean, that thing which you hadn’t done for public acclaim, got notice. What was next?
Bennett: It’s funny, I was doing a pop culture painting, right? It was something that I knew would perform well on the internet. So I started making memes – like SpongeBob memes that I knew would do well on say like TikTok, for example – which wasn’t super fulfilling as an artist, but it was really fun and people really were responding positively to it.
Miller: Oh, so you really… After that, it was a more conscious, ‘What’s going to get clicks?’ and you figured it out, and you were right.
Bennett: I think, yeah, I’m fully willing to admit that. It was exciting to get attention for these large-scale paintings.
Miller: Yeah. Back in the fall you did something called the ‘Crypto-Zoo: Museum of Mystery.’ What was it?
Bennett: It’s an unfortunate title, as it has nothing to do with cryptocurrency. But it is kind of the evolution of a project I started doing in my front yard. It was an alphabet of monsters. I created these large-scale art displays in my front yard that evolved every single day over the course of a month. They got a little too popular, so I shifted directions into an empty building in St. Johns neighborhood in Portland, took over an old bank and made a monster museum.
Miller: It was an A to Z museum, right?
Bennett: Correct. Yeah. It was actually my second museum of monsters, which made it extra challenging to find 26 interesting new stories. But it was amazing. It was so much fun, and it was really well received.
Miller: When you say that you did this, you sought out that old bank space because you’d been putting creatures up in your front yard and they were getting too popular, what do you mean?
Bennett: I did an alphabet of animals where I told my partner Michelle, one day I was like, ‘You know, I think I’m gonna start putting an alphabet in our front yard. I’ll start with A tomorrow, then I’ll add B, and by the end of the month we’ll have a whole alphabet.’ She was hesitant but willing. That was the first alphabet. I did a second and then a third. At the end of the third one, we had several hundred people in front of our house. We were printing t-shirts in my garage. We had a line around the block. It was too much for my tiny neighborhood.
Miller: Did your neighbors say that as well?
Bennett: No. No, I just really wanted to make sure they never had to say it. That was my biggest, my biggest fear was: I just don’t want anyone to complain, so at the…
Miller: Right. Enough with the animals or enough with the people in the line. They didn’t say that, but nevertheless you wanted to head that off at the pass. Was it hard coming up with not just one but two monsters for every letter in the alphabet? I mean, what’s a Y monster?
Bennett: I think the cool thing about monsters is most of them are storytelling. I don’t want to say all of them because how cool would it be if they weren’t. But, it’s a lot of storytelling. It’s a lot of digging around on the internet. But you know Y, Y was Yeti. Have to do Yeti.
Miller: Oh! I guess, probably everybody listening was like, ‘Duh. Yeti.’ [both laughing] All right, I’m curious what your sense for the experience that people had in that first old space that you turned into a very new place. Because this was before Dinolandia. But what did people experience as they walked through this old bank?
Bennett: Gosh! I grew up on the East Coast, and every October it was so fun to go to any haunted attraction we could find. The weather’s a little easier for an outdoor event. I was obsessed with these immersive spaces, but admittedly I was a little bit of a coward when it came to scary stuff. I really wanted there to be a fun Halloween immersive experience that didn’t require jump scares or scary sounds. So I decided to make this cartoony, very 90s-inspired, monster museum with a storyline where you get to learn about Baron von Bennett and his collection of monsters.
Miller: What did you do with these big crypto-animal monster cutouts when that Museum of Mystery closed?
Bennett: Well, it was only open for a month. At the end we had a big old yard sale where we sold off all the monsters and the props that we had built. This little community in St. Johns and Portland really showed up for it, and I kind of just gave them to the folks who wanted them the fastest. We even had a few people buy monsters to give to families who might want them, which was really special.
Miller: How did Dinolandia then come to be?
Bennett: We wrapped on the Crypto-Zoo on November 5 and kind of took the winter off as far as large-scale creation. But I just kept thinking, ‘Gosh, dinosaurs would be so cool. I just need to find a grand enough building.’ So I spent several months trying to find a building that would allow for dinosaurs to exist in Portland. And finally found this old Banana Republic at the Fox Tower building downtown, and they were down for it. They got it. They understood what I was trying to do, which is something that was the biggest challenge on the location hunt.
Miller: What was it like when the lease came through, and you walked through that empty retail space for the first time?
Bennett: It was a very surreal feeling: the echo, the lights, laying down those first pieces of blue tape to say, ‘This is where the T. rex is going to go.’ It made me feel like a little kid again, which is the ultimate goal of Dinolandia, so it was really fulfilling.
Miller: How much time did you have at that point to turn an old retail space into a place where sort of cartoonish, large-scale dinosaurs could roam free?
Bennett: It was mere days over three months. We had just days over three months to build this entire thing.
Miller: What were those three months like?
Bennett: Oh my gosh! Well, we stuck to 9-5 for the good portion of the first two months. And as we approached the end, I started realizing how big my checklists were, and the 9-5 became 9-9 on some days. But the excitement really drove us through, and the community that helped put this together made it feel like dinosaur summer camp. It was amazing.
Miller: How big was it? I mean, how big was your team?
Bennett: So all in all at the very end, I counted about 33 corps members. However, most days there were only six of us in the building. So we have people coming at the end and light it, and help me rig up the audio, and help us build our time machine, which is pretty cool.
Miller: You mentioned audio, my understanding is that a friend of yours wrote an original score for Dinolandia. We’ll listen to part of it in just a second. What can you tell us about the composer and the music?
Bennett: Gosh, I used to live in a really small town in Pennsylvania and I was really obsessed with conversational community podcast. I decided to start my own stand up comedy open mic and without any intention of ever performing stand up, still having to this day. But I love listening, and this guy Billy Kelly showed up and did this incredible set of storytelling and family friendly jokes, and we kept in touch. He’s a composer, he’s writing music, he has a Grammy nominated children’s album about trees. So we’ve kept in touch and he wrote an immersive score highlighting all of our different environments in Dinolandia, and I can’t stop listening to it. I don’t have a choice anymore.
Miller: I’m so glad. Let’s have a listen to part of the score for Dinolandia from Billy Kelly. [Music playing]. What was it like to be working full time and then more than full time downtown, when there has still been a lot of talk about the so-called death of Portland?
Bennett: There was hesitance, which I fear to say out loud, but I wasn’t necessarily afraid of coming downtown. We’re down here all the time for various things, but knowing that I’d be here every day and, and the cliche, oh, parking is going to be hard was a thing, but being where we’re right across from Pioneer Square, making friends with all the food cart pod owners, it’s been great and it’s a reminder that even downtown Portland’s still feels like small Portland. I don’t have a bad thing to say about it.
Miller: We’re talking right now with Mike Bennett, he’s a visual artist who created the Dinolandia pop-up exhibit. It’s on southwest Yamhill Street in downtown Portland. It’s open from Tuesday through Sunday. It runs through September 10th. Admission is $5 for adults, but it’s free for children, eight and under. So that’s a nominal fee, $5, but you’ve been working on this with a team of a lot of other people for months. How do you make a living?
Bennett: I know several people who asked me that question. I feel like I have had a very responsible, fun and respectful presence in Portland for a few years. So I’m very thankful for some of our sponsors like the Trailblazers who have covered a month of rent for us, which is incredible. Miller Paint, who’s donated paint. Mr. Plywood who donated hundreds of sheets of plywood to us. That allows me to pay my friends. And of course families are adopting dinosaurs, which it is a relatively high price, but it pays my friends to keep doing this with me and now that we’re open, I feel very confident that that was the right choice.
Miller: What was it like to create this whole space out of nothing, but knowing that it’s going to be temporary? And that’s what you did for the Museum of Mystery as well. That was just one month. But these are places, it’s like a sand castle where you build it, and then pretty soon the tide is going to come in and wash it away.
Bennett: Gosh, it’s funny you said sandcastle, because I think that’s a better phrase. I’ve been using “blanket fort”. I loved building blanket forts as a kid, but boy that I hate tearing them down. You have to clean it up and put everything away. And I know that’s on the horizon, but a blanket fort is such a magical place that you get to spend a Saturday night watching Nickelodeon, and I feel like the special part of that is, it’s never gonna be here again. Dinolandia will never exist in the way that it exists now ever again. And I think that adds some real excitement and magic to a space like this.
Miller: You’ve been open about the fact that your partner Michelle, who’s also an artist and who worked a lot on this, has also been going through some serious health issues throughout this, dealing with chemotherapy. What’s it been like for you and your partner and your friends to all be working on this together over the last few months?
Bennett: You know, it was a daunting task to even unlock the door for the first time, just knowing what a project like this could do to our home balance, especially going through health and things like this. But I really think it brought everyone together, including my partner Michelle and I, in ways we didn’t expect. It gave us something else to talk about that wasn’t the world at large. It was ‘boy, I hope we get these lights put up today’. It made things simpler and more complicated, and gave us a lot of things to talk about. And I want to say aloud, Michelle just finished chemotherapy yesterday. So I’m getting a little emotional talking about it. But boy, it’s a real special thing.
Miller: You call yourself a public joy creator. What does that mean to you?
Bennett: Artist is a term that I totally accept, but I think when I walk into Dinolandia, or the Crypto Zoo, or check out our front yard, I don’t see art. I see magic, and safe space, and world building, and the fact that people are visiting Portland for the first time and they are solo travelers, and they’re just willing to stroll into this weird cartoon dinosaur museum on the street, and then they have a wonderful time as a full grown adult. That’s public joy to me. I think catching people off guard and causing a smile without expecting anything in return, really has been the driving force behind all of this.
Miller: What gives you joy these days?
Bennett: So Dinolandia is in Fox Tower, which is a large building in downtown. And there’s a lobby next door that I only pass through at the beginning and end of the day, but I’ve been making friends at the security desk. And they told me last night that since we opened, and kids are leaving through the lobby to go to the parking garage, they’re hearing kids talk about Dinolandia, and roar and sing the songs from the store that got stuck in their head. And I think that is what brings me joy just the fact that I get to make this weird dinosaur memory that kids might not even know why they have this memory in 20 years, but they’ll remember that they went to this cool thing once.
Miller: Mike Bennett, thank you so much.
Bennett: Thank you.
Miller: That’s Mike Bennett, a Portland-based visual artist, self proclaimed public joy creator, creator of the Dinolandia exhibit on Southwest Yamhill.
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